As a province, Udon Thani has a lot going for it. Phu Phra Bat Historical Park and the Ban Chiang archaeological site, in particular, are two of the Isaan region’s most interesting attractions. On the other hand, the not-so-charming provincial capital hosts a hefty community of expats, mostly Western men, and a small section can feel like a scaled-down version of Pattaya. Steer clear of the seediness and you’ll find a booming commercial hub with a plethora of markets.
Some travellers will no-doubt prefer nearby Khon Kaen for its modern feel, or Nong Khai with its relaxing riverfront, but neither of these are as lively or as comfortable as Udon city. The expat presence means that good-value accommodation, Western food and conveniences like motorbike rental and English-speaking tuk tuk drivers are always at the ready.
Excavations at nearby Ban Chiang proved that people have lived in the area for thousands of years, but the city itself is not so old. After the French wrestled control of Laos from Siam in 1893, the Thai prince/general Prajak moved his military stronghold south from Nong Khai to a small settlement, establishing a town that grew to become Udon Thani, or the “Northern City.” Now home to around 200,000 people, it’s grown into one of Thailand’s largest.
Rooted in Lao/Isaan culture, Udon is also home to many Chinese-Thais and the kingdom’s largest group of Vietnamese. Many of the downtown shops selling gold, incense and coffins look like they could have been plucked straight out of Bangkok’s Chinatown. During the American War, US servicemen stationed at what was then one of the largest air bases in Southeast Asia added to the city’s eclectic atmosphere while boosting the local economy tremendously.
Udon is one of the better market cities in Thailand: tightly packed clusters of vendors seem to appear down every side lane as you explore the gritty streets. Several of the largest markets include a vast network of food and clothing stalls around the train station, though we recommend venturing into some of the more hidden markets elsewhere in town. You’ll also find modern air-con shopping malls to go with a couple of large public parks.
In the outlying province, you can peruse 5,000 year-old ceramics at Ban Chiang, then head to Kumpawapi Reservior for a boat ride in the “Red Lotus Sea” (dry season only). Peruse Udon’s own orchid species at Sunshine Orchid Farm on the way to Phu Phra Bat Historical Park, where ancient cave art, odd rock formations and Dvaravati ruins steeped in legend make for a memorable day. The spiritually inclined should also head to the vast forest temple, Wat Pa Baan Taad, to practice meditation while experiencing the legacy of the late Ajahn Maha Bua, one of the most highly respected monks in modern Thai history.
Udon city is a major transport hub for the upper Isaan region, with a relatively large airport, train station and buses and vans departing from at least four different places. If coming from Bangkok, a cheap flight to Udon and then immediate minibus to the Lao border will get you to Vientiane in time for a sunset beer beside the Mekong.